ANOTHER COUNTRY: AN INTERVIEW WITH LEFKI SAVVIDOU
Lefki Savvidou aka “Lé Boob” lives in a country just outside Deftera, Cyprus. It’s surrounded by cactuses and fig trees and its government is art: drawings and tattoos mostly. It’s a country where she doesn’t have to talk to anyone, but sometimes does. Friends often make the trek out there. She cooks for them and drinks whisky with them. Sometimes she makes art with them. She draws when she’s sober and writes when she’s drunk, and she’s been at work on one of the most interesting hybrid books we’ve seen all year, It's Not You, It's the 21st Century.
Write CY: Your tattoo work involves etching ink into human flesh, which is then on permanent display, and you also post your stuff on Instagram and Facebook, two very transitory mediums for quick consumption—and forgetting. Do you see any irony in that?
Lefki Savvidou: No, not up until now [laughs]. I think I use Instagram, especially for my writing—it’s more of an archive for me to use—so that I won’t lose stuff. I’m just trusting Mark to keep all my data.
WCY: He’s got all your data.
WCY: Ok, so my generation is more into the website portfolio. You don’t have one.
LS: I tried, but it’s old-fashioned. Because people aren’t going to go looking for websites. How are you going to find my website if you don’t know who I am? But I do follow a lot of writers on Instagram. Poets.
WCY: Instagram is good for what you do because of the visual element.
LS: Visual presentation is very important for me. That’s why when I do my Daily Poetry, it’s super short. And it’s not just letters on a white or black background. I might put my whole hand in there.
WCY: Does that make it more personal? Connecting your poetry to your body?
LS: Yeah, I think so. Also, if people see a hand holding a tiny notebook, they know it’s me. Otherwise, it could be anyone.
WCY: Do you feel any different about work that ends up on a human body, as opposed to a wall? Does it mean anything to you? Do you get satisfaction when you walk into a supermarket and see someone walking around with your art on their body?
LS: Not that kind of satisfaction. But I do like it when people text me and say they saw this girl or this guy and asked them if it was my work and they said yes, because people can recognize my stuff, and that’s pretty cool. But, no, I don’t feel there’s a difference if I do something on a piece of paper or on someone’s body. I tend to work the same way on a body as I do on a piece of paper. I’m not more careful on a body. If there’s a mistake, it’s supposed to be there. I try not to be a perfectionist when it comes to that, and I think that’s what people like about my stuff.
WCY: You’re familiar with the Brutal Black Project. I was on their Facebook page this morning, and frankly it was difficult for me to look at. Take a look at this.
LS: Oh, wow.
WCY: How long does that take?
WCY: It’s a different kind of needle.
LS: It’s a giant-ass thing with a bunch of needles packed together.
WCY: It’s openly sadistic and ritualistic and their message is transformation through pain. This is at one end of the tattoo spectrum. At the other, you have plenty of people running out and getting tribal tattoos or Chinese characters that presumably have zero meaning for them. Where does your own work fall on that spectrum?
LS: I wouldn’t see this [Brutal Black Project] as a tattoo. It’s more of a body modification. I wouldn’t call it a tattoo. Only technically.
WCY: To go back to my question, where on the spectrum does your work fall?
LS: I think you’d need a sociologist to answer this question [laughs]. But I wouldn’t get annoyed by a guy getting a tribal tattoo because he digs it, if that’s what you mean. And because he thinks it’s cool, even if it’s a few decades old. But they are coming back.
WCY: I see a lot of them.
LS: Barbed wires are coming back.
WCY: Let’s talk about your illustration. You do work on paper and canvas. You also do what you call Daily Poetry. These are one-liners about the human condition. How do you see this work in terms of writing or art? Do you visualize or verbalize primarily? Or is it something in between?
LS: When I started the Daily Poetry Series, it was mostly word puzzles. How could I make three or four words produce a feeling, or, like, a more general thought. Sometimes when I show it to people, they don’t get it, but they do make sense in my head. Sometimes even the sentences are completely wrong grammatically.
WCY: So you’re saying it’s more visual and the text is secondary?
LS: Yeah. Sometimes I do a drawing first and then try to use words to connect it to the image, to explain it, even if the image is very vague.
WCY: But other times the words come first.
WCY: Do you notice a difference?
LS: Yes. Starting with words drives me crazy.
WCY: That’s very interesting. You’re obviously not just a visual artist, but a verbal artist. A writer.
LS: Do you think so?
WCY: Sure. I think it’s the very definition of a writer. Trying to verbalize things that are difficult to verbalize.
LS: Let me put it this way. When I draw, I have to be sober. When I write, I need to drink.
WCY: Ok. Yeah. Have you ever tried writing without drinking?
LS: For Daily Poetry I’m usually sober.
WCY: What about reading?
LS: Do I read when I’m drunk?
WCY: I hope not. No, I meant, unlike a lot of young people these days, you actually read. Stories and novels.
WCY: I find that some of your poems are like a good Raymond Carver story. You read them and they open a door, and while story arc doesn’t really come into play, you get someplace and are left there thinking of the possibilities. For me that’s just like a good short story. Do you think about stories when you’re writing? Do you think of that kind of framing?
LS: Yes. I think there’s always a backstory in my work even if the reader doesn’t know it. I write one or two lines, so you know for those lines to come, there must be some kind of prehistory.
WCY: Do you think of those lines as the climax of the story?
LS: Yeah, or the end.
WCY: What’s your editing process like? Do you throw out a lot of poems?
LS: Very few. If something doesn’t work, I’ll try to make it work somewhere else.
WCY: So you don’t go back and…I mean, poets can take years to finish a poem.
LS: No, I don’t do that with my drawings or my writing. Or anything. When something’s done, it’s done. I mean, it’s something on its own, even if it’s not finished. I told you, I’m not a perfectionist. I don’t like things that have been worked on too long, because I get bored. If something needs editing, I’ll just try not to do it. If someday I need to edit something for someone, I’ll do it. But not for my personal stuff.
WCY: Short story writers and novelists can’t work that way. Because if things are wrong, or don’t work, they don’t work.
LS: I know.
WCY: I’m curious, what’s your writing practice like? When and how do you create? I had the impression, because it’s “daily” poetry, that you did it every day at a certain time. Like a ritual.
LS: No, it comes whenever. Sometimes it comes when I’m driving. Daily Poetry is like puzzles. I can be listening to the radio and a word will pop out, and then my head’s going to start processing it, trying to put other words together that work, and by the time I’m home, I’ll have something.
WCY: Your latest work is about life in the early 21st century. I love the title. It's Not You, It's the 21st Century. Like many of us, you realize something is wrong. It’s a huge bag to open in a short interview, but if you could put what’s wrong—what you feel is wrong—into a few words, where would you start?
LS: Oh, God.
WCY: I mean, why are you writing this book? Do you feel as if something is different from when you grew up?
LS: Definitely. We didn’t have Internet. Or we had MSN when I was in high school. We didn’t have social media. When you see fifteen-year-olds posting pictures…I can’t conceive of the way they grew up. I can’t imagine how they’ll be as adults.
WCY: That’s what’s wrong?
LS: No, no. I don’t know what’s wrong. Something’s wrong.
WCY: It’s a general feeling?
LS: It’s a general feeling.
LS: Everything. But I do concentrate on human relationships. Because politics you can’t control. Relationships you can control if you try.
WCY: So focusing on relationships is a way to make up for all this lack of connection, even though we’re hyperconnected?
LS: We’re not connected. A year ago, I spent hours sitting in my bedroom away from civilization just chatting. This year I started doing more face-to-face communication, which is very hard.
WCY: Is it?
LS: For me. I’m social in moments. It’s difficult. Because you can’t hide stuff. I mean, if you told me to explain this [points to drawing], I think it speaks for itself.
WCY: I know. I mean, I’m a writer. But I do think you need to talk about it. I think when you do talk about the creative process, you understand more about yourself and why you’re doing what you do.
LS: I would add that when I finished It's Not You, It's the 21st Century, I really wanted to cry. When I closed it and I said I’m done with this, I felt very emotional.
WCY: That’s how I feel at the end of a novel.
LS: I felt like I’d put a bit of myself, and my emotions and my philosophy, into this thing. I don’t know if anyone’s going to read it. I’m not sure if I’m doing it for posterity or not. I have the need to do it. For something or someone or maybe just for me.
WCY: I’m sad because when you finish a novel, the characters you create are trapped inside the book.
LS: I can see that.
WCY: Can we talk about Cyprus for a moment?
WCY: How do you feel working here? I mean, I know you came back to Cyprus for a lot of good reasons, but you probably gave up some opportunities you would have had working abroad. And, like a lot of Cyprus-born, Cyprus-based creators I know, you’ve dug in here. You’ve got this gorgeous 50s house in Deftera with all these cactuses.
LS: You know, I don’t feel like I’m in Cyprus. I feel like I’ve created my own world and it’s like a new country for me.
WCY: Are you trying to distance yourself from Cyprus?
LS: No, I like Cyprus. But when I come back home, I want to be in my own country. People ask me why don’t you go out more, why don’t you do this more. I tell them, I have my disco area out there in my living room. I’ve got my bar. I’ve got my café outside, my restaurant in the kitchen. I try to create this world. When I need to leave Cyprus, I can come back home and I’m in a totally different place. It’s a country I’d like to live in, and I’m living in it, I guess.
WCY: Do you have guests?
LS: Oh, yeah. People love coming here.
WCY: Does Cyprus affect your work at all?
WCY: Not at all?
LS: No. I don’t think this is Cyprus, any of the stuff I do. I just don’t feel it represents me. I mean I do want to do an exhibition, but I just feel it’s not supposed to be here.
WCY: Why Lé Boob? Have to ask it.
LS: I was seventeen. This was way before any of my art or art school…The thing is, I had trouble with my boobs.
WCY: Trouble with your boobs?
LS: Yeah, and I still do. I keep forgetting what you call it in English. I have this condition. Not a deformity. They keep producing these lumps that need to be taken out and sent for biopsy. When I was seventeen, I was very afraid when this thing came up, so my sister would try to cheer me up. Every time I would go to the doctor, she would say, ‘Did you go to le boob doctor? Did you go to le boob? Le boob. Le boob’. And it stuck. It’s not something I tried to come up with. It just came.
WCY: Can I put that in the interview?
LS: Sure, go for it.
Lefki Savvidou aka Lé Boob is a writer, tattoo artist and illustrator based on the island of Cyprus. Her work can be found online here and in the dark corners of her studio. When all work is done, she resides in her backyard to exchange wisdom with the giant lizard god.